While many people think of jazz strictly in terms of brilliant soloists, the heart of jazz remains essentially an ensemble music of collective improvisation that swings and employs “blue notes.”
King Oliver’s band, even with Armstrong’s brilliant solos, was widely known for their ensemble work—the Armstrong and Oliver-improvised duet cornet breaks mystified musical sleuths who would return night after night trying to figure out how they played like that without written music.
Armstrong claimed that during while they were playing and someone else was soloing, Oliver would finger the note~ he was going to use on the breaks and Armstrong would fall in as best he could. “We did not have to write them down. I was so wrapped up in him and lived so closely to his music that I could follow his lead in a split second.”
Both the self-taught and the formally trained jazz musician are constantly engaged in the battle to compose at the moment of creation, i.e. to improvise, in an ensemble context. All great jazz artists, no matter of what period or style, reach their zenith in an ensemble context.
On the other hand, the myth that the best soloists were the hot “black” style players like Armstrong is belied by the example of Sidney Bechet. Armstrong recollects, “The first time I heard Sidney Bechet play that clarinet he stood me on my ear.” Bechet, who emigrated to France where he was lionized as a national hero, did not record nor perform extensively in the United States, and is often overlooked as one of the early masters of jazz.
Although he made his initial reputation as a clarinetist, Bechet became jazz’s first major saxophonist when he pioneered the soprano saxophone as a solo instrument. Previously the saxophone had been used primarily in ensemble or for comical effect. Bechet had acquired his soprano saxophone during his 1919 trip to London, England.
The few surviving recordings of Bechet playing with Armstrong, cut in December of 1924 and January of 1925, reveal that Bechet was every bit the match for Armstrong as a soloist. Their January 8, 1925 version of “Cake Walking Babies from Home,” cut under the auspices of Clarence Williams’ Blue Five, is considered one of the first major jazz classics.
Armstrong offers the most interesting footnote on Bechet. Recalling his first opportunity to play with Bechet in New Orleans, Louie testifies about Bechet’s ability to play cornet: “I marveled at the way Bechet played the cornet, and I followed him all that day. There was not a cornet player in New Orleans who was like him. What feeling! What soul! Every other player in the city had to give it to him.”
The Black Influence
In some theories of jazz development, composition and formal arrangements have been identified as the European element and improvisation has been identified as the African elements. Even within the context of so-called “black” jazz in early New Orleans, differentiation has been made between the “uptown blacks” (whose style was considered blues-based) and the “downtown creoles” (whose style was considered classically-based).
In the context of jazz and the black community of early twentieth century New Orleans, creole refers to people of mixed race who lived as separate and often rigidly defined strata of society which was neither all white nor all black. For many years, the “colored Creoles” of New Orleans developed their own society that included many elements of European culture, such as education at some of the best schools in France.
After World War I, Jim Crow arrived with all its hooded malice. With the institution and legalization of segregation almost overnight, the creole and black elements of New Orleans were forcibly merged into one. Although differences remained more internal between the “uptown blacks” and the “downtown creoles,” externally and in relation to the dominant society, most social distinctions were erased.
While it is true that many creole musicians were formally trained and their outlook influenced the direction of the music, the larger truth is that those creoles who were the most active in the development of jazz were the ones who most closely identified with what are commonly considered the “black” elements of jazz, i.e. rhythm and blues.
Ferdinand Joseph La Menthe, better known as “Jelly Roll Morton,” the self-proclaimed “creator” of jazz, and Sidney Bechet, jazz’s first saxophone giant, are two of many, many examples of “creole” jazz greats that include names such as Buddy Petit, Alphonse Picou and Barney Bigard. If you read their interviews and autobiographies, their love of rhythm and love of the blues is explicitly stated. Bechet, in particular, traced his inspiration to a male ancestor two generations back who danced at Congo Square.
While some argue that it was their formal training that influenced the music of the Mortons and Bechets and helped to make jazz what it was, I think that actually it was jazz that gave vitality to their music rather than the other way around. In other words, jazz offered the vehicle for them to express themselves using whatever emotions, ideas and skills they had acquired.
In jazz, it’s not so much what you know but what you do with what you know. From the formally-trained to the self-taught, there is room in jazz for everyone.
The Birth of Jazz and New Orleans Farewell
The first major, “hard core” jazz artist (core as in the rhythm and blues element) to make an impact in the world of recordings was cornetist Joseph Oliver, a man widely hailed as “The King.” King Oliver’s band was the most important and most popular band in and around New Orleans.
In addition to his prowess as the reigning cornet monarch of jazz, King Oliver also had an eye for talent. It was King Oliver who picked his own successor, an awestruck youth who thought heaven was playing in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. This protege of Oliver was to become the world’s best known and most loved jazz musician: Louis Armstrong.
Armstrong would astound the world and quickly eclipse the talents of his mentor King Oliver. Oliver had left New Orleans in 1918 and sent for Louis to join him at the Lincoln Gardens in Chicago. He repeatedly had requested Louis to join him, but up to that point Armstrong had resisted. Finally, in 1922 Armstrong relented. From then on, almost all of the major stimulus and innovative creation that happened in jazz happened outside of New Orleans.
Jazz was born in New Orleans, but at 7:00 p.m. on August 8, when the Illinois Central pulled out of New Orleans headed for Chicago, for all practical purposes the future of jazz was headed north, embodied in a youthfully exuberant, fledgling cornetist named Louis Armstrong.
In Satchmo’ s mind, he was going to join King Oliver, his idol and musical father figure, but he was really setting out on the first leg of an unparalleled path of world conquest. His cornet was his sword, and he was destined to spread the gospel of jazz worldwide.
That’s how jazz was born and how jazz left home.
So You Want To Know More About Jazz…
If you really want to get a good jazz foundation there are two good places to start. The first is a written and recorded anthology called the Smithsonian Classic Jazz Collection. Assembled by jazz writer and historian Martin Williams, the collection consists of seven LPs and a 120-page paperback book detailing the history of jazz and offering mini-biographies of the major forces in jazz.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with all of Williams’ analysis and opinions, the fact remains this is an astounding and indispensable tool in the study and appreciation of jazz.
The current collection of classic jazz recordings is available for $53.45 postpaid by writing to Classic Jazz, Smithsonian Institute, P.O. Box 10229, Des Moines, Iowa, 50381 or by calling 1-800-678-2675.
The second starting point for any serious jazz fan is a good book on jazz. Every book is informed and limited by the views and perspective of the writer; however, one book stands out as the best general source book covering all aspects of jazz from the earliest recordings into the eighties. I recommend The Jazz Book, From Ragtime to Fusion and Beyond by Joachim E. Berendt. Be sure to get the 1982 version, since the book has been in print for over twenty years.
There are new releases of Jelly Roll Morton (on Bluebird-RCA) and Armstrong Hot Five & Hot Seven (on Columbia) available. Each of the recordings has been remastered and the sound quality improved. These offer the best place to start for an understanding of early jazz.
If you are interested in the contemporary New Orleans jazz scene, I strongly recommend two collections. First there is Harold Battiste’s New Orleans Jazz Heritage 1965-1966, a four-record set with a documentary booklet that covers the early jazz recordings of Ellis Marsalis, Alvin Batiste, Red Tyler, Edward Blackwell and a host of other musicians. The collection is available for $50 postpaid from Opus 43, 5752 Bowcroft St., Los Angeles, CA 90016.
The second collection is available on the Rounder record label. It is a three-volume set called The NEW New Orleans Music, which features 31 musicians recorded between 1985 and 1987 in New Orleans. Each of the volumes, which are available separately, features one group per LP side. This gives the most up-to-date overview of the contemporary New Orleans jazz scene.